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Is misinformation shaping our view of the automotive sector? Opinion

Professor Jim Saker

I had just finished making a complete mess of trying to record a 25-second sound bite for the BBC on supply chain problems in the industry, when a security man from the nearby shopping complex came over and wanted to know what we were doing.

I was about to relaunch into my monologue and tell him about the woes of the industry, incompetent governments and lithium prices when I realised he wasn’t really interested, but that the camera was in some way causing concern because it was pointed at empty Tesla recharging points on the shopping centre car park.

At this moment, the person from the BBC stepped in and rather pre-empted my potential tirade about freedom of speech.

Having been given our details, the shopping centre security man departed.

The ensuing conversation with the BBC reporter was interesting.

Freedom of speech, provided it doesn’t fall into the category of ‘hate speech’, is one of the things we hold dear in our society.

It means we often must put up with a lot of drivel especially from politicians, many of whom seem to have a dysfunctional connection with the truth or do more U-turns than Nikita Maze(s)pin before Putin ended his Formula 1 career by invading Ukraine.

The challenge comes in what sources of information you believe.

We moved from a discussion about electric vehicles (EVs) to the issue of hydrogen power and the reporter said he had started to identify people who were actively campaigning on social media against hydrogen being a potential powertrain for cars.

This wasn’t advertising the merits of EV, this was a targeted campaign against an alternative power source.

He wondered whether someone or somebody was funding this.

Were these people so motivated by battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that any alternative could not be tolerated or was there something else going on?

This suspicion was reinforced by some work Prof Tom Jackson at Loughborough had done with a motor manufacturer that identified that well in excess of 50% of the social media content about them was being generated by bots, possibly set up to discredit or spread misinformation about the organisation.

The company was taking notice of these social media feeds as being genuine comments and this was potentially having an impact on their marketing activity.

Of course, advertising has always tried to put a positive spin on an organisation and some of it will imply negative conclusions about competitors.

The difference between advertising and the information on social media is that on the former we know where it is coming from and can impute the reason why the person/organisation is publishing it.

On social media this is not easy and we end up trying to understand the intent from the content – a far greater challenge.

Author: Prof Jim Saker, director of the Centre for Automotive Management at Loughborough University’s Business School, Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) president and AM Awards judge.

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